Sydney Writers’ Festival 2011 – Food Fighters (featuring Anthony Bourdain and A A Gill)
This article is based on notes and a memory that will possibly be needing gingko biloa soon. Please do not take everything here as gospel; I tried to quote when I could, and paraphrased when I couldn’t.
I have to admit, I’ve never actually read Anthony Bourdain (most famous book: Kitchen Confidential). I’ve seen his shows and particularly enjoyed his episode on the Philippines, where he ate balut (duck embryo—don’t ask me why) and generally looked like he was having a good time. I had never, before booking this event, ever heard of A A Gill, but enjoyed his sharp wit so much that I went out and bought his book, Here & There: collected travel writing, right after.
Bourdain and Gill were speaking at the Food Fighters panel as part of the Sydney Writers Festival. The panel was facilitated by Sydney celebrity chef Tony Bilson. It was not an easy job to facilitate conversation, but Bilson was able to keep two strong personalities back on track despite the risk of distraction. I’ve done my best to categorise their discussion as they tended to jump about a bit. I’m sure that based on the title alone you can tell that most of it will be about food!
Are you a diner or an eater?
The evening started out with the question, ‘Are you a diner or an eater?’ Bourdain and Gill answer below, where everyone also discusses Ferran Adria, the master chef of Spanish restaurant El Bulli. (Click here if you can’t see the video below.)
I really enjoyed this talk. Both authors made fun of the pretentiousness of fine dining. Bilson presented Gill with a glass, saying this could be ‘fresh river water’, prompting Bourdain to quote someone equally famous who said, ‘I would never drink something that fish have fucked in!’
Bilson then noted that both authors cited visiting the Japanese fish markets (Gill could not remember what they were called) as life changing experiences. Japan would be a topic that was continually returned to; Bourdain in particular is quite fond of Japanese food—more so than Gill. According to Bourdain, ‘The very things that make Japanese pornography so strange makes their food so great!’ He added that his crew enjoys going to Japan, because after going to so many strange places and eating strange food, coming to Japan and eating there ‘cleans out your plumbing.’ A visit to the market feels like they fished the whole ocean, even if it has only been a day. Gill in particular loves the tuna, which he referred to as ‘tuna bombs’.
On fine dining
Gill said that he hopes fine dining is over, along with waiters that come along to say, ‘Can I explain to you what our concept is?’ Both authors hate food that come with explanations—the kinds that take longer to explain than to eat the food—as well as square sized plates that come with ‘the chef recommends you eat the food starting from the left…’
Gill asked Bourdain if he’d ever had dry soup: the soup comes out, completely dry, then a waiter comes out and pours something liquid on it. He said, ‘Couldn’t you just have done that in the back?!?’ His demonstration had us laughing uproariously.
They then talked about how back then it seemed like you would have to have all these courses with matching wines. Things have changed to become simpler (and cheaper!) now. Bourdain admitted that one of the reasons he likes alcohol with his food is because of the sex, but that ‘Nothing puts off jaded diners like us more than 4 full size courses w matching wines. You’re not Fucking anybody after that!’
On organic food
‘An animal that is stressed or lives in fear tastes bad. Chefs prefer their animals happy!’ –Anthony Bourdain
The discussion went on to foie gras—everyone including Bilson loves duck—and Bilson asked them what they thought of organic food. Bourdain thought that it was a positive thing and is glad that people want to look after their land. Gill, however, argued that in Europe being organic feels like a marketing concept, that ‘it doesnt have anything to do with quality—it’s people who don’t farm telling people how to farm.’ He felt that it ends up with different kinds of food for different kinds of people—processed food for the poor and the middle class, with food packaged with labels covered with fields. Bourdain concurred that in America, organic and non-organic food come from the same companies, and that people weren’t stupid and can figure things out. At the end of the day, you ‘should not make people feel bad about what they’re eating.’
‘If you want to know what a culture is like, just eat its food. Especially if you’re properly grateful’ –Anthony Bourdain
‘The point of food is people. We are the only [group?animal?] that can eat together and maintain eye contact, we don’t get together and have to compete for food.’ –A A Gill
What is it that drives you to write about food?
Bourdain said he was a provocateur as a child. (The person who asked the question compared him to a naughty child at the back of the school bus throwing pens at girls. She even had to tell them both to shut up to ask her question!) Bourdain also said he has a lot of rage and indignation and feels he shouldn’t suffer alone.
Gill said it was because food is life—you have to sustain yourself, and you never get to the end of the meaning of food.
What would be your last meal?
(This was brought about by a conversation that started with foie gras, the treatment of animals when cooked in certain cultures, and then suddenly it became ‘Would you eat a human?’ to which Bourdain replied, ‘two weeks on a life boat and you’re not doing your share of the rowing? Hell yes!’)
Gill’s would be the guy who flips the switch if he were to die today!
Bourdain’s last meal would be a really good sushi and yakitori, washed down with a perfectly brewed Guinness from the tap.
Bilson’s would be duck and a bottle of bone.
‘The best thing you ever ate is the thing you need now. For example, if it’s 2am and you’re drunk, the best thing in the world might be a hamburger.’ — Anthony Bourdain
Bourdain fell in love with Southeast Asia. Gill is passionate about Africa and India.
Bourdain would have been a bass player if he hadn’t become a chef and writer. He refers to Spain’s Bocaria as ‘ham porn.’
After the talk, I made my way to the signing section and got some books signed. It was so rushed that I didn’t get to thank Bourdain properly—Quick, picture!—and I only thought to tell him I enjoyed his episode on the Philippines after I had left. (The photos are also crappy. My apologies!)
I really enjoyed this event and am looking forward to reading their books. (I hope to review them later on.) If this talk is anything to go by they should be incredibly witty and full of food adventures. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to grab something to eat!
This event was held at the Sydney Town Hall on May 19 as part of the 2011 Sydney Writers Festival.